If you’re into skincare, you can’t avoid the term “clean beauty,” especially since it’s becoming one of the most hotly debated trends in the industry. All you need to do is compare two product labels to see that what constitutes “clean” varies — and that making sense of the inconsistencies can be muddy work.
We asked two expert skincare scientists — Michelle Wong, a chemistry PhD and educator who breaks down the science of skincare on her blog, Lab Muffin, and cosmetic scientist Lalita Vedantam, whose popular Instagram account, @skinchemy, has more than 55,000 followers — to help clear it up.
What does ‘clean beauty’ mean?
The general assumption is that if a product is clean, it doesn’t contain any ingredients that are irritating or harmful to your health or the environment.
Seems pretty straightforward. Where’s the confusion?
There is no standard, industry-accepted definition for what constitutes a clean beauty product or which ingredients make the clean list. This claim also isn’t regulated by the FDA or any other governing body. While the label sounds quasi-scientific, it’s mostly a marketing term inspired by the popularity of clean eating and living. Applied to the beauty aisle, the idea of scrubbing away harmful ingredients spawned an entire category of products designed to appeal to health-conscious consumers.
So there’s no regulated list of “clean” versus “dirty” ingredients?
An ingredient’s “pass” or “fail” status in terms of being labelled “clean” usually has more to do with what message a company wants to send about its product than it does lab-based science, says Wong, who’s based in Sydney, Australia, and has 122,000 followers on Instagram.
“Different companies have excluded different ingredients they’ve decided are not clean,” Wong says. (Read more about the actives BalmLabs’ chief dermatologist chose for ClearBalm here.) Consumers often assume any ingredient on those lists are, by nature, harmful to human health.
“Cosmetic chemists are not evil. They do not purposely put ingredients in skincare products that will kill people,” she says. “There are a lot of things that go into making a product safe or unsafe, but the presence or absence [alone] of an ingredient isn’t one of them.” Wong adds it’s helpful to remember that everything is nontoxic at a low-enough dose. “The flip side is that everything is toxic at a high-enough dose — even water,” she says. “Most cosmetic ingredients are safe in the amounts used in cosmetic products.”
So there are no specific ingredients to avoid?
Stay away from those you are allergic or sensitive to, but otherwise, Wong says, “most cosmetic ingredients are safe in the amounts used in cosmetic products.”
What about preservatives?
Choosing a product that boasts a preservative-free status might seem like a “clean” choice, but if the product has water in it (and most do), a preservative is vital to its safety and integrity, Wong says.
“Preservatives are put in products to keep bacteria from forming. Every time you open and close a product, bacteria gets in. Even a tiny amount of bacteria, if it has lots of food to grow, will grow on you, including on your skin,” she says.
Parabens are the most commonly used preservatives in skincare. They’re also regularly listed among the “dirty” ingredients. That status stems from a small 2004 study that uncovered parabens in 20 breast tumors and generated a global buzz. The problem with the study, says New Jersey-based Vedantam, is that it did not draw a causal link between the parabens and the development of the tumors. That fact was absent from the headlines the study made, though, when it struck fear into consumers.
Okay, so the terms aren’t regulated at a federal level, but what about within the industry?
Some retailers, such as Sephora and Credo, offer a seal or stamp for products that meet their own individual standard of clean. But again, the definition of the term can vary. Understanding the retailers’ criteria is a key piece of the puzzle.
So how can I feel good about the decisions I’m making?
If you want to have confidence in what you’re choosing to put on your skin, Vedantam recommends reading up on the first five ingredients on the product label. Wong’s most trusted sources for accurate information are the Cosmetics Ingredient Review and Cosmetics Info, which has a free ingredient dictionary compiled by scientists.
“People are inherently scared of chemicals they can’t [pronounce],” Vedantam says. She recently found herself dispelling fears online over the chemical compound dihydrogen oxide, which is just the chemical name for water. “If you don’t understand something,” she says, “do your research.”